The need for moral enhancement

Erik Parens reviews “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement” by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu. This article appears in Issue 62 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.

In the early 1990s, the Georgetown bioethicist LeRoy Walters began to ask, What if we could use biomedical means to ‘enhance’ people morally? What if, for example, we could use such means to reduce our ferocious tendencies and increase our generous ones? For those predisposed to be critical of ‘enhancement’ and also prepared to be honest, that was a hard question. Criticising the prospect of better athletes is one thing, criticising the prospect of morally better people another. That hardness may help explain why at least the critics of enhancement tried, for the next several years, to focus the enhancement debate on relatively easier questions concerning traits like strength, mood, or intelligence.

In 2008, however, Thomas Douglas, then still a student at Oxford’s Centre for Practical Ethics, published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy a much-discussed paper that was explicitly about moral enhancement and was explicitly enthusiastic about it. In the paper he sought to expose the wrongness of the thesis he attributed to the critics: that it is ‘always morally impermissible’ or ‘absolutely objectionable’ to use biomedical means to enhance people morally. Even if no critic ever said that such means are always morally impermissible or absolutely objectionable, Douglas deserves credit for opening up an important conversation, which, indeed, cannot proceed reasonably from any such absolute claim.

Picking up from where Douglas left off, Julian Savulescu (who directs the Oxford center where Douglas was a student) and Ingmar Persson (who is a research fellow in the same center) have now published the first book-length assessment of ‘moral enhancement’. Proceeding from the assumption that using biomedical means is not absolutely objectionable, most of the book describes the moral dispositions and commonsense morality we have evolved to have, and describes the disastrous mismatch between those moral resources and our acquired capacity to wreak destruction with technology.

Readers familiar with Persson and Savulescu’s enthusiasm for using technology to enhance human capacities in pursuit of a ‘transhuman’ future may be surprised here by their despair before the technological power that brings us to the brink of catastrophe. Alluding to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they write: ‘We are inclined to believe that … a half century ago or so, when scientific technology provided us with means of causing Ultimate Harm, technological development reached a stage at which it became worse all things considered for us to have the current means of scientific technology, given that we are not capable of handling them in a morally responsible way.’ They identify two paths to Ultimate Harm. One is being trod on by all-too-careful terrorists, who are hell bent on using ever more sophisticated technologies to destroy liberal democracies. The other is being trod on by careless members of those liberal democracies, hell bent on using ever more sophisticated technologies to promote their profligate ‘overconsumption’. Indeed, Persson and Savulescu sometimes sound more like the prophet Jeremiah than, say, the prophet Ray (Kurzweil).

They do spend some time analysing that first, terrorist path. Their primary conclusion is that, to block it, liberal democracies will have to increase surveillance of citizens. This conclusion rests on their argument that privacy is a legal – not a moral – right, and that such a right can be restricted for the sake of the state’s survival. Moreover, they suggest, members of a liberal democracy well might vote for increased surveillance out of self-interest. They spend most of their time, however, analysing that second path to Ultimate Harm: the selfish overconsumption that is leading to environmental destruction. Here is where ‘biomoral enhancement’ comes in.

Appealing to evolutionary psychology, Persson and Savulescu remind us that our contemporary moral psychologies – and ‘commonsense morality’ – are adaptations to ways of life that are now 150,000 years old. Living in small groups, we evolved to care for those who are genetically and geographically close, but to fear those genetically and geographically far. We also evolved an overriding preoccupation with our own survival, at the cost of caring about the survival of future generations of our species, much less other species or the planet. As they assert over and over, because it has always been easier for human beings to harm a complex system (like a human organism) than it has been to benefit such a system, our morality has always emphasised the imperative not to harm others over the imperative to benefit them. Our ‘commonsense’ belief that acts of commission are morally weightier than acts of omission is a by-product of that same fundamental feature of our reality.

While those moral dispositions and that commonsense morality were once adaptive for people living in small groups and in possession of relatively crude technologies, they are no longer. If we accept that traditional moral means are inadequate to our current predicament – as evidenced by our failure to use them to achieve the moral improvement we desperately need – and if we accept that there is no plausible absolute objection to using biomedical means, then, Savulescu and Persson conclude, it is time to try a new approach: enhancing ourselves morally by means of biomedicine.

They say rather little, however, about how we might actually get from our current biomedical knowledge to practicable moral enhancements. They make the fair, if banal, point that moral behaviours like altruism and a sense of justice ‘have biological bases’, and they allude to a couple of specific biological targets – the neurotransmitters serotonin and oxytocin – that, in principle, might be manipulated to achieve the sorts of moral enhancements they envision. They fully acknowledge, however, that it is hard to imagine how those particular targets could, in practice, be manipulated to reliably produce enhanced moral behaviour. As they allow, even if we could, say, reliably reduce the concentration of neurotransmitter X in the brain to reduce an individual’s proneness to some action Y, whether such an action led to a good or bad moral outcome Z would depend on the context.

Think, for example, of the ferocity of the passenger who led the assault on the terrorists in the cockpit of the ill-fated flight over Pennsylvania on 9/11. Indeed, at the end of the book, when Persson and Savulescu finally do try to envision what biomedical moral enhancements might actually look like, they have to acknowledge the point from which they began: it is easier to harm a complex system, whether a human organism or an ecosystem, than to benefit it. (In the journal Neuroethics, Chris Zarpentine has recently elaborated just how gigantic are the practical obstacles.)

Savulescu and Persson are also keenly aware of – and ultimately sympathetic to – a closely related but deeper worry, which has preoccupied those prone to criticism from the beginning of the enhancement debates: the worry that in our effort to enhance ourselves, we will inadvertently diminish ourselves. Here the worry is specifically that, in our efforts to make ourselves more moral, we will make ourselves unfree, and thus incapable of being moral. Savulescu and Persson go out of their way to emphasise that they do not endorse any sort of biomedical intervention that would make moral behaviour ‘irresistible’. They want to liberate humans who have moral deficits to act morally, not deprive them of the freedom to choose. They want to ‘amplify’ the capacities of empathy and sympathetic concern in those who lack them. We might say that all they want is to ‘treat’ those who are morally ill, those who can’t experience the sense of altruism or justice experienced by those who are healthy.

Unfortunately, they spend little time explaining how, if the technology were practicable, the liberal democracies might implement a program of moral enhancement. They say that hundreds of millions of young people would need to be morally enhanced, but say virtually nothing about who would identify those children. As they acknowledge several times, there is a huge bootstrapping problem: Who exactly is sufficiently moral to identify those children and to implement the appropriate program?

It is hard to disagree with what they call their main point: ‘liberal democracies are in need of moral enhancement in order to deal safely with the overwhelming power of modern technology.’ It is striking, however, that by the end of the book, after they have acknowledged the magnitude of the problems associated with biomoral enhancement, they back way off from the claim that they sometimes seemed to be making earlier: that only biomedicine can treat the disease created by the mismatch between our paltry moral resources and our burgeoning technological capacities.

Indeed, the subtitle of the book, ‘The Need for Moral Enhancement’, avoids indicating that we need biomedical means to achieve such enhancement – while allowing the potential reader to imagine that only those means will do. After all, it’s not terribly controversial to assert that we need to use traditional, social means to become morally better. A more accurate, if less sexy, subtitle would have been: ‘The need for human beings to improve their moral behaviour is so great that using biomedical means should not be off the table, even though such improvement won’t be feasible in the foreseeable future, given the complexity of our moral natures, the crudeness of the available biomedical means, and the ethical and political obstacles to creating such a program.’

Although the remedy they sometimes appear to be prescribing doesn’t seem feasible even to them, the disease they diagnose couldn’t be more serious. When those prone to enthusiasm can acknowledge that an intervention that made us unable to choose freely wouldn’t be worthy of the name ‘enhancement’ (as John Harris recently put it in Bioethics), and when those prone to criticism can acknowledge that biomedical means aimed at enhancement aren’t absolutely or always objectionable (as I did above), we have entered into what we might view as a ‘second wave’ of the enhancement debates. Perhaps we’re closer than we were in the 1990s to having a conversation about what true enhancement is, and about how we can deploy all of the resources at our disposal to fight the disease that Perrson and Savulescu persuasively describe.

Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement by Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu (Oxford University Press), £21.00/$35.00.

Erik Parens is a senior research scholar at The Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York.

  1. So that is how the gospel of salvation gets revalidated. We must be born again, we must be enhanced, we are dangerously imperfect. Is it justifiable to use a trick, a subterfuge, a myth, in the cause of survival? Would we have the courage to reduce the dosage when we got society on a more even keel? hmmm…ah yes, the opium of the masses shall our salvation be, its that or nucular war.

Leave a Reply